Central Nervous System
Managing A World-Class OCC
An airline can run a world-class operations control center (OCC) by employing highly skilled professionals, integrating operational systems, setting up a disaster recovery facility, implementing change-management processes and promoting open-line communications among the various departments that support the OCC.
An airline’s system operations control center is similar to a human body’s central nervous system, which is the core component of the nervous system that integrates the information it receives from and coordinates the activity of all parts of the body. Like the central nervous system, the OCC ensures that all applicable departments across an airline are aligned so, despite irregularities, an airline can perform at top efficiency, with all necessary components working together like a well-oiled machine.
Managing a world-class OCC, first and foremost, takes skilled people who are empowered and prepared to make difficult decisions that will impact tens of thousands of passengers as well as the bottom line of the company.
In other words, the airline’s OCC manageron-duty (MOD) has the authority to cross all organizational lines when making decisions and possesses the training and experience to make informed decisions.
Rarely are the MOD’s decisions made in isolation. Therefore, it is critical that the OCC is equipped with the optimal tools and the best possible support team to assist him or her in making timely, informed decisions.
Disaster Recovery Site
It is essential for airlines to invest in a disaster recovery site that is a good distance away from their primary OCC site and runs on a different power grid and communications switch from that of the OCC. The site should have ample space to accommodate all OCC personnel for the foreseeable future.
Most airlines staff their OCCs with representatives from dispatch, maintenance, crew scheduling, air traffic control coordinators and revenue management. It is also important to include experts from flight, flight service and/or customer services. With the various groups represented in the OCC, the floor plan needs to accommodate the communication flow among the groups that interact frequently.
Open lines of communication among these groups are critical to running a smooth operation. While various departmental representatives provide input into the decision making process, the final decision rests with the MOD. Therefore, clear guidelines must be in place to establish ownership, roles and responsibilities among departments to avoid overlap and confusion.
The MOD oversees the big picture, considering the impact of decisions on crew availability, maintenance, hub resources, dependability and passengers. Once a decision is made, the MOD communicates the plan to all responsible departments involved with the execution of the plan.
Airlines spend millions of dollars on the design, construction and equipment for their OCCs. These operations centers are no doubt state of the art when initially occupied. However, as technology changes, airline investments in their OCCs must continue to ensure infrastructures do not become outdated, leaving the airline at a competitive disadvantage.
System performance as well as airline operations may be impacted as an airline adds, expands or consolidates solutions. Technology that distributes timely and accurate information to decision makers is a must. Airlines can control upgrade costs by designing OCCs that are flexible enough to add new positions or relocate positions as requirements change.
Critical to an OCC, a command center is activated when events such as an incident involving injuries or a labor action that may result in schedule disruptions occurs. At this point, all event-related information is redirected through the command center where decision makers gather to focus on the event.
Data Management/Systems Integration
The continuing consolidation of the worldwide airline industry has given rise to several mega-carriers. This trend has considerably changed the structure of the traditional OCC. Some mega-carrier OCCs now manage more than 900 mainline aircraft that serve more than 2,500 daily departures with 12,000 pilots, 20,000 flight attendants and multiple hubs. The amount of data collected and evaluated is overwhelming, making it all the more critical that the MOD has the necessary technological and human resources in place to successfully manage the OCC.
In addition to overseeing routine scheduled operations, the MOD is also responsible for the airline’s quick reaction to unexpected events caused by thunderstorms, maintenance or air traffic control. At other times, the MOD has days to develop a plan for events such as an impending hurricane. Routinely, the MOD will evaluate multiple options of crew and equipment changes before moving to a solution involving extensive cancellations and delays.
The proper tools enable the presentation of data in a timely manner using what-if scenarios from which the MOD can select the best solution, balancing the priorities of passengers, crew and equipment. With integrated systems, all departments are notified immediately of the plan and can react quickly to address the problem network wide versus having cancellations trickle in one at a time.
For example, the knowledge of something as simple as a revised estimated time of departure (ETD) is powerful information. When a revised ETD is entered into the airline’s movementcontrol system, the updated information is shared with the various systems throughout the airline such as reservations, crew scheduling, maintenance and revenue management. These individual systems accept the new ETD or OOOI (out, off, on, in) update, perform an analysis and alert the individual users who can react to the changes in a timely manner with a solution beneficial to the airline’s operation as a whole.
With the trickle approach, department representatives risk making decisions in isolation, such as moving equipment and reaccommodating passengers or crews, that may negatively impact the entire network.
Most OCCs are equipped with a combination of legacy and commercial-off-the-shelf systems, which were designed to solve individual issues. Instead, the sharing and integration of information through data layering has proven to be a more-effective method for distributing data across various systems. Data-layer integration ensures consistency in back-end data among different users in different applications. This approach ensures consistent data is shared in a timely manner as well as avoids a potential duplication of data (see related article, “The Same Wavelength,” in Ascend, 2013, Issue No. 1).
Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity
Because the OCC is an airline’s nerve center, it is imperative that carriers invest in disaster recovery sites and in the development of business continuity plans. A disaster recovery site should be identified in advance of a catastrophic event. The site should be far enough away from an airline’s primary OCC site to be on a different power grid and communications switch. All mission-critical business processes should be replicated at the backup site and have adequate space to accommodate all OCC personnel for an indefinite period of time. If the primary OCC becomes uninhabitable, processes and personnel are transferred to the disaster recovery site to avoid a lengthy disruption to the airline’s operation.
"Managing a world-class OCC, first and foremost, takes skilled people who are empowered and prepared to make difficult decisions that will impact tens of thousands of passengers as well as the bottom line of the company.”
Business continuity plans must also be in place in the event that individual pieces of the OCC, such as the communications system or individual operational-critical applications, become inoperable. Both the business continuity plans and disaster recovery site should be exercised regularly to ensure they are functional and up to date and the workforce is properly trained. The backup plans or systems should be similar or identical to the production system to minimize the training and maintenance of these systems.
An OCC needs a command center where the airline’s decision makers gather to focus on significant events that impact the operation of the airline. Events such as an incident involving injuries or a labor action that may result in flight schedule disruptions are sometimes part of an industry with many uncontrollable variables. Once the decision is made to activate the command center, pertinent airline personnel are notified by the MOD and eventrelated information is then redirected through the command center.
This activation allows the MOD to continue to focus on the daily operations. Since command-center activations may occur at any time, preplanning must be ongoing and should include:
- Maintenance of contact information for command-center occupants and their designated backups;
- Clear definition and documentation of roles and responsibilities;
- Establishment of a process for capturing and disseminating status updates to airline personnel;
- Execution of testing, training and exercises to support the activation.
Front And Center
Because the OCC is at the center of an airline at all times, its personnel, processes and technology should remain at the forefront of airline operations. Weaknesses, such as limited human resources, inadequate training, outdated technology, dated processes and insufficient communications, are detrimental to this nerve and may negatively impact the entire operation.